A Lesson in Social Media from Glee

My kids are hopeless Gleeks, and after watching last week’s episode, I might just be too.

Glee may just be the most perfectly designed social entertainment experiment of this year. I’m not sure if the producers of Fox’s runaway hit did this by intention or dumb luck, but they’re providing a textbook example of how old media can leverage new media.

Fans of Glee (Gleeks) are driving tons of traffic online, and the end of every road seems to be an opportunity for deeper engagement with the show, most with a small price tag attached. Let’s sum up the lessons Glee could teach us about how to leverage online.

Package for YouTube

Each episode of Glee contains at least 4 to 5 “minishows” that can be sliced and packaged to be the perfect “YouTube” length. Of course, there are the musical performances themselves, lasting anywhere for 2 to 5 minutes, but there are also sections obviously intended to go viral, for example, the “All the Single Ladies” football clip from Episode 4 (below). Tell me the director didn’t have Twitter and YouTube in mind when he set up this. The typical Glee episode feels like a series of YouTube clips, glued together with bridging dialogue and storylines. That sounds like a criticism, but it works extremely well with our digital attention spans.

“Glee” Football Team Dances To Single Ladies?!?!

Understand the Basics of Buzz

Boring doesn’t go viral. Something has to tweak our primary emotions in a big way for us to feel compelled to pass it along. According to Gerard Parrot, there are six basic emotions: love, joy, surprise, anger, sadness and fear. If you move the needle far enough on any of those, you’ll create an irresistible urge to share with someone. If the goal is to entertain, your choices are somewhat limited – you probably want to steer clear of anger and sadness tends to make people draw within themselves in unexpected ways. Love is also a deeply personal emotion, so doesn’t have the same viral opportunities as some of the other emotions. That leaves joy, surprise and fear, which are more universal in nature. Glee, being a musical comedy, plays the joy and surprise cards regularly. Again, using the Single Ladies Football clip as an example, tell me that anyone can watch that without feeling a little bit happier. It surprises and delights.

Tap Into Emotions

We love talent shows. We love geeky underdogs. We love struggling romance, especially if it’s twisted into a triangle. We like strong and quirky characters. And we love music. Glee wraps this all into a seamless package, thanks to the natural intuitions of its writers. For example, in the last episode, we have Kurt, perhaps the most interesting character on Glee, demanding a Diva showdown between himself and Rachelle (played by Lea Michele) to see who will sing the song “Defying Gravity” in an upcoming show. Kurt insists there’s no reason why this song “has to be sung by a girl” and he sets out to prove it by hitting a falsetto High F. This, of course, pushes all the right emotional buttons, setting up an irresistible storyline. The idea came from Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt. It was lifted directly from his own high school experiences. The result, perhaps the most popular Glee song yet, currently #28 on iTunes most popular tracks.

Glee Cast – Defying Gravity

Leverage Your Digital Asset Portfolio

The real genius of Glee comes from how they’ve spread their online net, welcoming all Gleeks with opening arms. Glee is the perfect example of the new diversified nature of online presence. It’s not simply about a website anymore. Glee is all over Twitter (@glee onfox), YouTube, Facebook, iTunes and all the right blogs and forums. And, all the pieces dovetail together perfectly. Audio and video clips lead directly to iTunes purchase links, opportunities to purchase the full soundtrack or online versions of the full episodes on Fox’s website, complete with advertising. Glee is creating revenue tie ins that extend far beyond the traditional TV show. Glee’s not the first to do this. They borrowed a page from American Idol’s playbook, also masters of digital integration. But I think this is the first time I’ve seen it so effectively done in a scripted show.

Understand that Communities Take Time

Fox had an understanding of this right from the beginning. The pilot was aired on May 18, several months before the show’s fall debut. The long, slow release was to give momentum a chance to develop. It was all part of Fox’s marketing plan. “The way we’re looking at May 19 is, it’s the world’s largest grassroots screening,” said Joe Earley, the executive VP in charge of marketing for Fox. “The show sells itself better than any (campaign) can. Our goal is to turn the people who watched it into brand ambassadors, to use hackneyed marketing-speak. We believe that when you watch this show, you can’t help but get out the word.” Earley’s strategy has worked before for some of the most loved TV shows in history: Cheers, M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Seinfeld and The Office. We need to get comfortable with a new show and develop some empathy for the characters. Fox also leverage the Web well in helping this grassroots community to take hold. The “Glee” pilot followed Chris Anderson’s marketing strategy: it was free and ubiquitous. Fox pumped it out through every available online channel: Hulu, Fox, YouTube and other sites.

Plan Your Online Landscape

Glee understands the new dynamics of our digital society and has staked out prime real estate at each of the intersections. I think the entertainment industry is substantially ahead of the curve in keeping its finger on the pulse of online activity. The following charts from Google trends shows the typical activity following each airing.


This shows trends for Google searches throughout 2009. As Fox intended, the pilot debut (the first peak) had a corresponding jump in search activity. This has been steadily building as the series has kicked into gear. Like all things online, Gleeks are connecting through search (one area where Fox could brush up, but I’ll get to that in a minute). Let’s zoom in for a closer look at the traffic in the last 30 days:


Here, we see peaks corresponding with the typical air dates. What’s interesting here is that no new episodes aired between October 21 and November 11, due to the World Series. Yet search traffic still spiked during what would have been the air dates.

Let’s now look at what’s happening on Twitter, thanks to Trendistic.com. Since the fall kick off, we’ve seen reliable peaks representing almost 1% of all Twitter traffic. That’s impressive. Notice the lack of traffic during the 2 week hiatus, from Oct 21 to November 11.


Now, let’s look at the one thing Fox could do better – improve their search visibility (once a search marketer, always a search marketer). Although the official Fox site ranks #1 organically for Glee, the popularity of the show means that Fox should start considering expanding their search strategy. The three most popular characters: Lea Michele (who is going to be a major star), Cory Monteith and Chris Colfer are starting to generate some significant search volumes in Google.


Notice how Colfer and Michele took off after the November 11th episode which featuring their amazing duet of “Defying Gravity” (yes, I love show Broadway show tunes), which I’m sure led to a pile of iTune downloads. Yet, if you searched for any of these cast members, you would not find any official sites, but rather a motley collection of fan sites, forums as well as Wikipedia and IMDB entries. Fox is dropping the search ball here. As online communities build, you can provide warm, welcoming and well lit locations for them to visit. Fox has hugely popular content that would allow them to better leverage all this burgeoning search traffic.

Despite the rather mild criticism about Fox’s search strategy, Glee is doing almost everything right here. If you were looking for an example of how to integrate social into your strategy, you could do worse than becoming a Gleek.

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